Olney Odyssey #18: Minding the Morgue

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“Morgue work takes a certain personality.”

When I made the decision to become a refrigeration technician I figured that was a way to get off the elevator and into a better paying and less alienating occupation. Our City Hospital AFSCME union local represented the workers in the physical plant at the hospital who did all the routine maintenance work. The maintenance chief told me that he would give me a look if I completed a tech course. I enrolled in the Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning (HVAC) program at the Northeast Institute of Industrial Technology, which was located on Phillips Street on Beacon Hill. I was carrying two study commitments: pursuing a Spanish degree at U-Mass Boston on Columbia Point in Dorchester and splitting time with an evening vocational school.

Northeast was founded in 1942. It was a poor second to the much more prominent Wentworth Institute which granted engineering degrees and had prestigious vocational programs some of which are used today by the unionized building trades. Northeast at its height had 400 students in a two year day program and an evening certificate program. In the nineties enrollment declined to about 100 as real estate values increased. The property was sold for a fortune in 1998 when the school closed.

I was in the evening HVAC program with about 20 other students most of whom were from the working class Boston suburbs of Revere, Medford, Braintree and Quincy. There were two of us from Boston. I lived in Jamaica Plain at the time and the other Hub student was an African American named Tom Mack from Dorchester. Most of the other students in class were already working in the trade but needed to up their game. I immensely enjoyed the “theoretical” training on heat and pressure, but I was not too swift when it came to “sweating” joints with solder. That was a big problem because lots of the service calls involving malfunctioning reefers or AC units involve leaky pipes and joints.

I had nothing to compare the training with so I can’t vouch for its quality, but there were some entertaining instructors. One teacher named Tom Glavin took it upon himself to school us in all the ways to get rid of overly inquisitive and attentive customers who were shadowing our work. He told us to always carry an old screwdriver that you could use to “make” a 220 circuit produce a fireworks display of short-circuiting sparks. If that didn’t work to drive away the nosey customer he showed us how to drop a toolbox “accidentally” on the customer’s toes.

My lack of facility with tools and the basics would haunt me a few months later when my classmate Tom Mack and I set up our own little business, T&P Refrigeration. One of our first service calls was to a high-end pastry cafe called Just Desserts in Somerville. The principal cooler for all their foodstuff was not “pulling” down the proper temperature and there was a danger of spoilage. We identified a leaky line and recharged the system with refrigerant and collected our fee. Later that evening I got a dreaded “call back” that the cooler was not cooling. I went to Just Desserts and found a leak and repaired it, but the cooler wouldn’t work properly. I decided to spend the night sleeping next to that cooler and repairing and recharging whenever the temperature would inevitably start to rise. After that night sleeping with the fine pastries I decided that T&P (at least the P part) was not a viable business model and we closed shop.

“Sometimes bodies would arrive at the morgue and stay there waiting for next of kin to claim them”

Once I demonstrated in 1981 to the BCH maintenance shop that I was enrolled at Northeast they gave me a job as a maintenance helper. I was out of the elevators and into the power plant. I was assigned to work with an outside HVAC contractor named Phil Doyle who was a member of the Plumbers Union and who was permanently stationed at City to handle all their big cooling issues. He was a fabulous teacher and a fabulous human being, a white Irish-American who refused to leave his Mission Hill neighborhood as it became increasingly Black and Puerto Rican. Most of his brother plumbers had fled the city of Boston, but Phil was committed to his neighborhood and befriended his new neighbors. I became very close to him, and he treated me like a son. Daily he urged me to let him get me into the Plumber’s Union “Frosty” program, but I was committed to hanging in there at City.

In the beginning my workday consisted of following Phil around and doing the simple tasks that he would assign. We handled everything from the giant “chillers” that air-conditioned the whole hospital to a little icebox that was cooling blood vials in the Intensive Care Unit. One location in the hospital where cooling is of the utmost importance is the City Morgue, and that was part of our daily rounds. We would walk in on autopsies and the stench of human blood and guts. Phil handled the overall cooling of the autopsy room.

My assignment was to make sure that the bodies being stored on the slabs were kept cool. This meant that the “heat exchangers”, cooling coils, inside the compartments had to be constantly cleaned or they would be choked by dust and other waste and rendered non-functional. City of course was the final resting place for the poor, indigent and homeless when they passed. Sometimes bodies would arrive at the morgue and stay there waiting for next of kin to claim them. Attorneys were paid by the City of Boston to track down blood relatives, but if after 6 months no one was located the corpses were given public burials in potter’s fields. Many of the bodies on the slabs were in advanced stages of decay and rot.

My work was to get inside the giant chest of drawers and straddle the slabs and use forced air to blow the coils clean. That meant that I often had very close encounters with the deceased. There was one cadaver that Phil and I called “the man with the fur coat” A male body had been lying in the morgue for so long that a whitish green mold had covered his whole naked body. The ringlets of mold were so pronounced that it had the look of a giant white stole.

Morgue work takes a certain personality. There needs to be a combination of sensitivity because you deal with next of kin, but also a certain hardened callousness so that you can find humor in the grimmest of circumstances. Who would have thought that over thirty years later my dear friend and comrade Gene Bruskin would write a brilliant musical play about morgue workers rebelling called “Pray for the Dead: A Musical Tale of Morgues, Moguls and Mutiny”?

As I roamed the corridors of BCH on my refrigeration rounds I would meet up with Steven Eurenius, a fine human being who became a lifelong friend. He was a bio-medical technician charged with fixing the cutting edge electronic equipment necessary to save patients and keep them alive. We had initially bonded on my elevator when he saw me doing a crossword puzzle and peered over my shoulder to give me the solution for “44 Across, Poet Lazarus”, 4 letters. “EMMA”, he said. We decided in the spring of 1982 that we would do a drive away together out to California for our vacation. An elderly Italian American man in Framingham, Massachusetts wanted his car driven to Scottsdale, AZ where he was retiring. We decided that was a good fit for us and would bring us within striking distance of California. In early August of 1982 we picked up the car, and my friend Steve and I, like so many before us headed West.

Next: OO# 19 – Christina and California – A Game Changer

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About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

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